Controlling the rumours. Interview with Neil Tipton of West Mercia Police.

I had a chat with Neil Tipton, Web Development Officer at West Mercia Police, on 24 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what he told me.

Background

West Mercia is the constabulary serving the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire (and Telford and Wrekin), and Worcestershire.

We make extensive use of Facebook as part of our regular campaigns. We’ve been using the platform for two years. Since May 2010 we have also had a corporate Twitter account, largely publishing news releases. We make some use of YouTube and have accounts on other social networks largely to protect our username.

We had explicitly planned to use our corporate Twitter account for real time public communication in major incidents as well as day-to-day interaction. We had also explicitly planned to use social media for rumour control around major incidents.

We do not yet have officially sanctioned local social media accounts (for neighbourhood policing teams for example) but this is something we are actively exploring for future implementation.

Trigger and escalation

We had an operational plan in place for policing a march by the English Defence League and opposition groups in the Shropshire/Telford town of Wellington. As part of this plan comms staff were to be mobilised to monitor social media networks to challenge rumours and provide an authoritative voice.

We were obviously monitoring the disorder in London and other parts of the country. Even so the Monday was a normal working day. North Worcestershire is in our area and borders the West Midlands so when incidents were reported in Birmingham that seemed closer to home. That evening I was at home looking at how other forces were using social media. At 2300hrs we received the first question direct to the force twitter account asking us for information on rumours of a riot in our area.

There were not then, nor at any point during the following few days, any incidents of significant disorder across West Mercia. We had very isolated examples of criminal damage and trouble but nothing out of the normal run of policing.

I called the control room, they were receiving high volumes of calls from residents worried that riots might be spreading to our towns and cities. I began tweeting from home, controlling rumours. Social media activity died down again by 0100hrs.

On Tuesday the force started Operation Denver to reassure our communities and keep West Mercia calm. As part of that we started a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for the comms team so there was always one person on duty handling social media.

We monitored Twitter and Facebook and corrected misinformation. We sent public @ messages to individual users if they were repeating rumours and answered questions presented to us. We thought that tone was important. We tried to be friendly and authoritative. We were occasionally lighthearted: I added an #unfamiliarkeyboardfail hashtag at one point. But we were ready to modify that tone if the situation had deteriorated.

At its peak, we were dealing with questions and comments directed at us at a rate of one every 10 seconds and keeping track of whether we had replied and when was a challenge. Hootsuite was a very useful tool to help us to collaborate and check who had done what.

As the week progressed it became clearer that no incidents of disorder were happening within West Mercia and the situation began to calm. Our biggest challenge became finding new ways to say “nothing is happening, the situation is calm”.

On the Saturday we had to police a static demonstration by the English Defence League and other opposition groups in Wellington (the Home Secretary having banned marches). This involved a co-ordinated effort between comms staff for the police and also Telford & Wrekin Council . As well as managing the traditional media, a large part of our communications activites were again focused on social media, where we worked hard to provide timely updates based on fact not conjecture.

One of the challenges in fluid situations like these is that you can state a fact, correctly – such as there are no incidents, everything is calm – but five minutes later something may be happening that contradicts this. However, we tried to be clear and prompt to keep people informed of what was happening and when and always correct or update statements as the known facts emerged.

We went from 2,000 twitter followers to 4,500 in a few days. The force website received a months worth of traffic in just one week.

Learning points

It was fun to move from what might sometimes be considered a back office role to the front line and nice to have a feel of direct relevance. We had a lot of positive feedback from the public about our use of social media including someone who said that we had “Really changed my perception of the police”.

The force had always acknowledged the importance of social media but now that officers have seen it in a real environment they really understand its relevance. Social media impacts on how these events unfold. Our Chief Constable David Shaw has been very clear that social networking is now a permanent feature both of our thinking and our response to major events and incidents from now on.

The challenge for us is to sustain the momentum. We want to keep our followers and continue to explore the engagement opportunities this affords us. Encouragingly, we haven’t had lots of people turning off our Facebook updates from their newsstream or choosing to stop following us on Twitter in the days since the protests and national disorder.

Message to other category one responders

Don’t underestimate the volume of messages you will need to handle, or the staffing implications this may bring

Tone is really important.

You need to have systems to allow you to handle social media work between several members of staff, particularly for Twitter, where the standard interface is difficult to work with.

Neil tweets as @neiltipton and he has written up his recent experiences for the Guardian

You can find West Mercia Police on twitter @wmerciapolice and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/westmerciapolice